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The Devaluation of the Iranian Threat

The Devaluation of the National Intelligence Estimate of the Iranian Threat

by Ephraim Kam

In December 2007, the American intelligence community published a new assessment of Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities. The report stressed two new findings:

  • Iran had frozen its nuclear military program, in the framework of which secret installations had been used to convert and enrich uranium and to try to transform radioactive materials into weapons;

  • There are doubts about Iran’s intention and determination to develop nuclear weapons, and Iran is more sensitive to pressure on nuclear matters than had been previously thought.

The revised estimate did not preclude the possibility that Iran would continue to seek nuclear weapons and even raised that possibility in some of its sections. It also indicated that from a technical point of view, Iran could acquire nuclear weapons some time between 2010 and 2015. Nevertheless, the main message implied in the report was that the danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon is not so clear and present. As a result, the NIE seemed to narrow America’s (and Israel’s) margin of maneuver on the Iranian nuclear issue: it cut the ground out from under the option of military force and complicated the possible application of more severe sanctions.

Since the publication of the report, however, its impact has been progressively devalued. The most dramatic indicator of this is the statement of the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, in his testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee in late February 2008. McConnell’s report to the Committee was grounded in the December NIE, but the tone of his testimony was quite different, and it included two important emphases that deviate from those given in the previous document:

  • The December report focused on the freezing of the Iranian military nuclear program, implying that the immediacy and severity of the Iranian nuclear threat had diminished. McConnell also presented findings about the suspension of the program, but he stressed that the two activities most relevant to the production of nuclear weapons are uranium enrichment, which facilitates the production of fissile material, and the development of long-range ballistic missiles, which can serve as delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads. His report finds that Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment activity is the most problematic challenge in the realm of nuclear development, and he points to Iran’s continuing efforts to upgrade its long-range missiles.

  • Doubts about Iran’s intention and determination to develop nuclear weapons, which figured prominently in the NIE, are absent from McConnell’s report. He stresses that the American intelligence community continues to be concerned about Iran’s nuclear intentions and that Iran continues to develop a range of technical capabilities that are applicable to the production of nuclear weapons. Nor does he condition the possibility of nuclear weapons production with the phrase “If Iran decides to do so …”, as did the December report.

This devaluation can be attributed, first of all, to the fact that notwithstanding the reassuring findings of the NIE report in December, the American administration, along with leading European governments and Israel, continued to stress the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat. Indeed, the American and Israeli governments stated immediately after the publication of the NIE report that it would not influence their assessment of the threat or of the measures to deal with it. Indeed, the NIE has meanwhile had no real impact on efforts to impose additional sanctions on Iran. Nor did it prevent the UN Security Council from passing a third – though not particularly onerous – round of sanctions.

Secondly, the NIE report ran into a storm of criticism by professional echelons in Israel, Europe and the United States itself. The main charges were that it did not sufficiently stress the dangerous implications of Iranian nuclear activities, especially the implications of Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium to high-grade levels and produce fissile material in its civilian program; that it exaggerated the importance of the military program (and its suspension); that it did not emphasize the connection between Iran’s nuclear program and its missile program; and that it contained several internal contradictions. There were also charges that the report was distorted by the failure of American intelligence during the run-up to the war in Iraq and that it was motivated by political considerations, i.e., the desire to influence the Administration not to launch military action against Iran. That criticism somewhat undermined the credibility of the report’s and even prompted Thomas Fingar, the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council that drafted the NIE, to admit in March 2008 that the Council did not assume that the report would be published and that if it had believed otherwise, it would have formulated the estimate somewhat differently.

Thirdly, while the most recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency in February 2008 did not specifically refer to the NIE, it did cast an additional retroactive shadow on the NIE’s approach. The IAEA, which has consistently refrained from drawing far-reaching conclusions about Iran, actually issued a more severe indictment of Iranian nuclear activities: it included voluminous information about procurement and attempted procurement of components critical to the development of nuclear explosive devices, about research in fields connected to nuclear explosive materials, about the development of special detonators and detonation methods, about preparations to test and assemble warheads on ballistic missiles, and about testing of advanced centrifuges that would allow a much faster rate of uranium enrichment. The fact that it was actually the IAEA that referred to the need to check the existence of a possible military dimension to the Iranian program underscores the lack of balance in the NIE.

All in all, the December 2007 report still basically reflects the American intelligence community’s assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. However, the harsh criticism directed against it, the declarations of the Administration and of other government following the report’s publication to the effect that their approach to the Iranian threat had not changed, the admission of the National Intelligence Council’s Chairman that the formulation of the document could have been different, and the more balanced report of the Director of National Intelligence have all combined to draw some of the sting from the December report and to relax the constraints it initially seemed to imposed on the pressure that can be applied on Iran to change course.


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